Horse meat scandal puts grocers through the mincer

January 17, 2013

TescoUntil a couple of days ago, few outside the food retail and logistics business would ever have heard of Silvercrest. Now it has achieved household notoriety as the weak-link in the food chain that has served illegal horse meat up on British tables, in the guise of own-label supermarket beef burgers.

The reputational damage has, rightly, been severe for all those involved. Tesco – which fessed up to at least one line of its apparently legit beef burgers being contaminated with 29% horse meat – has seen £300m wiped from its stock market valuation overnight and has now taken out full-page ads in most national newspapers, grovelling abjectly. The timing could not have been worse, from a corporate point of view. Just days ago, a halfway decent set of financials had seemed to indicate that Tesco was on the ramp of recovery.

Luckily for Tesco, it is no longer alone. A host of other high street names – Aldi, Lidl, Sainsbury, Asda, the Co-Op, Morrisons, Burger King among them – have now opted to clear their shelves of the offensive products. In some cases because they use the same supplier, ABP/Silvercrest, in others merely as a “precaution” lest the same fate might befall their own supply chain. Only McDonald’s and Marks & Spencer have been able to stand aside, smugly waving a clean bill of health.

Their smugness is unwarranted. This disaster could so easily – in only slightly modified circumstances – have happened to them.

Some might argue that the horse-meat scandal is little more than a storm in a tea-cup, got up by the media. After all, no one died and no one is likely to: horse meat is eagerly consumed all over the globe, from Kazakstan to Argentina, as a tasty substitute for the tougher, stringier beef that can be bought for about the same price. Indeed, there’s not a little hypocrisy in this country about the cultural taboo surrounding horse meat. Until about 100 years ago, the Brits themselves were avid consumers of the stuff. Only more recently have we developed the refinement of conscience that prohibits national consumption, while allowing us to send up to 10,000 nags a year to specialist abattoirs, there to be despatched for the perverted pleasure of less civilised foreigners.

Alas, the ramifications of this affair go somewhat deeper. Imagine, for a moment, that instead of horse meat (and elements of pork), those eagle-eyed  inspectors at the Irish Food Standards Agency (FSAI) had found the minutest traces of human DNA. The uncontainable revulsion – far from affecting a few animal lovers, Muslims and Jews – would be universal. An official inquiry would, there and then, be instituted into how these three wise monkeys – the suppliers, the retailers and the regulator – had, through cavalier negligence and the unobstructed pursuit of greed, been allowed to corrupt the integrity of the food chain. Because, make no mistake, this little cock-up is all about money. The burgers most tainted were those from so-called “value” products where the cost of ingredients is at all times under pressure. Retailers want to satisfy their customers with the lowest possible prices consistent with food safety regulations. The suppliers – browbeaten by the retailers – seek low-cost substitutes (in this case from the less  punctilious Netherlands and Spain, where the consumption of horse meat is legal). And the UK regulator takes a passive, compliant attitude to anything that is outside its immediate remit (no conceivable threat to health, so why bother with DNA tests?), suggesting a “lite-touch” relationship that is too cosy with the industry it is supposed to govern.

It makes you wonder why the FSAI could be bothered with such tests, but the UK’s FSA could not. Or indeed, why the retailers didn’t carry out such DNA tests themselves. After all, it’s their brand reputation which is going through the mincer because they have not.

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The Epica Awards: Whatever happened to the 30-second ad?

December 7, 2012

EpicaYou don’t have to look far for this year’s Big Theme in the Epica creative advertising awards. After 25 years as a Eurocentric awards scheme, with a nod now and then to the wider EMEA hinterland, Epica finally went global, welcoming entries from the dynamic emerging markets of Brazil, Argentina, India and China – not to mention the biggest creative challenger of the lot, the USA.

A recalibration of award winners – agencies, networks and countries – was only to be expected. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that three out of the top four awards – the Epica d’Or or grand prix –  went to countries that had never before won a grand prix.

What didn’t change was the judging principle. Epica is unique in representing the choice not of the creative community itself but of experienced journalists drawn from trade magazines in over 24 countries. I would not wish to give the impression that their judgement has been skewed by an influx of jurors from the new world, because that would be entirely untrue. The panel remains, for now at least, what it has always been: essentially European. The new challenge is the enlarged scope of their perspective.

Enough of the preamble. Who got the big prize? That’s normally taken to mean the film Epica d’Or. And the answer is: a total outsider from Denmark. When I say ‘total’, I mean total: the campaign was produced not by an agency, but by the in-house communications team of coach operator Midttrafik. Simply stated, the problem with coach travel is it appeals to the head, not the heart. It offers a no-nonsense, value-for-money alternative to other modes of transport, but “cool” it is not. The creative solution proferred by Midttrafik is a piece of burlesque called “The Bus” that humorously highlights coach travel’s unglamorous practicalities: comfy seats, panoramic views, acres of space, 24/7 availability, special bus lanes, and experienced, reliable drivers who take the strain. See the film a couple of times and you too will be saying, “Ja, still cool,” and “Yeah. Din es ‘street'” with a Danish accent. Watch out for the young guy on an orange motocross bike: his expression is a treat.

While the campaign creatives may be amateurs, direction and production are slickly professional. Step forward Marc Wilkins/RARE and M2Film respectively, who managed to make the whole thing on a budget – I’m told – of only €200,000. “The Bus” also took top prize – as it must do to qualify for the Epica d’Or, a gold – in the transport & tourism category.

Runner-up for the top prize – and also winner of the corporate image category – was Marcel Publicis’s epic “Cartier Odyssey”. Filmed with icy majesty, it is a lapidary hommage to the life of Louis Cartier on the occasion of his 165th birthday (165th? Don’t ask why – we’re talking high fashion here) which deploys the watchmaker and jeweller’s iconic panther as its leitmotif. Beautiful – and yet there is a chilly emptiness at its heart. What exactly is the point of this 3 minute 30 second historical travelogue, supposedly made for the cinema?

For my money a good overall winner would have been “Follow the Frog”, devised by the Rainforest Alliance and Los Angeles agency Wander. But it was scored in the public interest category, which by definition excludes it from consideration for the top film or print prizes. The Rainforest logo is a kind of kite mark, reassuring consumers that the product in question has signed up to a prescribed set of environmental standards. The campaign – long enough for cinema but meant for viral –  needs little other explanation. As you will see:

Long, isn’t it? Indeed, if there is a general criticism of this year’s film crop – which is considerably better than last year’s – it is encapsulated in the word “overblown” – too long, too self-indulgent and too reliant upon humour. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about from Canal+ and BETC, “The Bear” – which won the direction and cinematography category and was a runner-up in media:

It’s a mini-film in its own right, which is all very well if you’re the next Ridley Scott with designs on Hollywood. But whatever happened to the discipline of the 30-second spot? Well, it’s here, in this Aldi/McCann Manchester offering (actually 20 seconds long). Not new, I know – but as a seam of inspiration it’s seemingly inexhaustible. It won gold in the confectionery & snacks category:

Print winners: what can I say without a despairing note in my voice? It’s a fading format, with one or two redemptive examples of excellence. The overall winner this year – a first from Finland – was McDonald’s “Large Coffee”, devised by DDB Helsinki:

McDonald's

It’s probably better as a candidate for the outdoor prize, but no matter. That went to the Microloan Foundation’s “Pennies for Life”, devised by DLKW Lowe. Think wishing-well meets poster in an innovative digital format and you’re half-way there. Microloan is a charity that supports women in Africa setting up their own business. The idea is that you contribute virtual spare pennies via your smart phone, and watch the digitally-generated poster image take shape as the coffers swell:

Microloan

While on the subject of outdoor, one of the cleanest examples of the genre was “Stop Trying”, a gold winner in the household category devised by Herezie (a French agency) for Vapona. Not desperately original, but classic: strong, simple colourful imagery is complemented with unmistakable branding in the bottom right-hand corner. Brownie points to Herezie for pulling it off in a difficult, low-interest category:Flyswatter

And finally…

  • Germany once again topped the rankings, with a total of 66 awards, including 9 gold winners.
  • Britain moved up from fourth to second, at the expense of France and Sweden, which were third and fourth respectively. It won 56 awards but an unsurpassed 13 golds.
  • Top agencies were Jung von Matt Hamburg, with 16 awards (including two golds), followed by last year’s winner Forsman & Bodenfors, Gothenburg, which captured 10 awards and two golds.
  • Most successful network was DDB, with one Grand Prix and 8 golds. Next in line were Leo Burnett and Publicis Worldwide.
  • More on the awards here.

Big is beastly, especially if we’re talking big banks like Barclays

August 28, 2012

Which brands make us most angry? Yes, you guessed correctly. The big ones that rip us off, starve us of mortgage funds, pilfer our savings and behave with amoral disregard for everyone’s interest but their own. Anything, in short, that ends with the word “Bank”.

But come, let’s be a bit more specific. How about some brand differentiation – which is the worst, and which the runner-up? Well, coming in at number 2 – just behind the winning “All banks” category – is Barclays. And next, in 7th position, is Royal Bank of Scotland.

I know all of this thanks to some research, just out, conducted by YouGov and commissioned by creative agency Johnny Fearless (of which more below).

Why don’t Lloyds, Santander and HSBC make it into the top 10? Surely not on account of the odour of sanctity. We can only speculate, but could it be that Barclays and RBS have the two biggest Swinging Dicks attached to their brand heritage, namely Bob Diamond and Fred the Shred? I doubt that most people know who Antonio Horta-Osario is, and would struggle to recall his name in sufficient detail if they did. Which is probably just as well for Horta-Osario and Lloyds Bank.

More interesting, if perplexing in some ways, is the identity of the other 7 members of this exclusive Top 10 club. Tenth equal with Coca-Cola is Nestlé – still regarded as a corporate pariah on account of its anti-social baby-milk marketing practices in developing countries. I’m sure that doesn’t depress sales of Kit-Kats and Yorkie bars one bit, though.

And what’s Coke doing in there? Sorry boys and girls, for all your tender investment in clean athleticism, those grubby practices in Third World countries have not gone unnoticed.

Next up, “All utilities companies” at number 8, on account of their high prices and perceived profiteering. But two deserving special mentions here are British Gas – with its conspicuously bad customer service; and BT – with its ineffectual overseas call centres.

Virgin Media is in there at number 8 as well, although I have yet to discover whether this is because we’re all being beastly to Beardie or on account of some graver underlying cause – such as woefully inadequate service.

That leaves us with McDonald’s at number 4 – poor quality food and an inappropriate Olympics sponsorship, apparently.

…And, weighing in at number 3, the nation’s unfavourite retailer – Tesco. Memo to Tesco CEO Phil Clarke: it’s because you’re too big for your boots, despoil our high streets and blackmail your suppliers. No other retailer can do this so successfully, it seems.

  1. Which companies or brands make you feel angry? 
  2. What is it they do to make you feel angry?
Rank Company or brand
1 All banks’, ‘Banks’
2 Barclays
3 Tesco
4 McDonald’s
5 BT
6 British Gas
7 Royal Bank of Scotland’, ‘RBS’
8= Virgin Media
8= Utilities’, ‘Energy companies’
10= Nestlé
10= Coca-Cola

The research was commissioned by Johnny Fearless and carried out by YouGov. Total sample size was 2077 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between August 3-6th 2012. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).

Johnny Fearless is a Soho start-up agency founded by Paul Domenet and Neil Hughston, whose stock in trade is creating “social crackle” around brand messages. Or so it says in their publicity blurb.


Yes, we Cannes: WPP, McDonald’s and McKinney grab top Effie Index rankings

June 18, 2012

It might seem counter-intuitive to announce the global Effie ‘Effectiveness Index’ winners at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity but then, as my colleague Stephen Foster points out, Cannes has become such a monster event it serves as global launchpad for virtually any marketing services event these days. So, before becoming immersed in a week-long self-congratulatory orgy of advertising creativity, let’s just remind ourselves of those advertisers, brands and agencies that actually bring home the bacon:

  • Unilever is the most effective advertiser;
  • McDonald’s is the most effective brand;
  • WPP Group is the most effective advertising holding company;
  • Ogilvy & Mather is the most effective advertising agency network;
  • Ogilvy & Mather (Mumbai) is the most effective individual agency office;
  • McKinney (Durham, North Carolina, USA) is the most effective independently held advertising agency.

Yes, I was wondering about that last one, too. It recently appeared in ‘The Pitch’, AMC’s unscripted programme in which two agencies vie over 7 days for  a piece of business, in this case Subway restaurants. McKinney won. It’s notable for its Audi A3 campaign, Art of the H3ist, which garnered two Effies and a Cannes Lion. And also for something called “connection planning”, which I take to mean an integrationist skill that ensures campaigns work smoothly across all channels.

Good for McKinney, I say. But I do have a qualification. Last year’s winner in this category was the slightly more universally recognised Wieden & Kennedy of Portland, Oregon. Now, I’m all for merit making its way to the forefront without having to await Buggin’s Turn. But I also look for consistency in results. The Effie Effectiveness Index, which is sponsored by insight portal WARC and compiled from 39 individual national Effie competitions, was only inaugurated last year and therefore lacks granular historical perspective. That said, there is a repeat winner this year: McDonald’s, with the most effective brand accolade. Here, for quick reference, is last year’s roll of honour:

  • Procter & Gamble was the most effective advertiser;
  • McDonald’s was the most effective brand;
  • Omnicom was the most effective advertising holding company;
  • BBDO Worldwide was the most effective agency network;
  • Sancho BBDO (Bogota, Colombia) was the most effective agency office;
  • Wieden & Kennedy (Portland, Oregon, USA) was the most effective independent advertising agency.
I don’t suppose that Sir Martin Sorrell will be worrying too much about historical perspective, as he wipes the blood away from his nose. One way or another, WPP has collared most of this year’s top Effies. So, he is worth it, after all.

Admen watch out: health Bannism is back

April 16, 2012

It’s been a while since the medical profession got onto its high horse about banning the promotion of fast-food and soft-drinks brands.

But now, sensing the increasing vulnerability of the Coalition Government, it’s charging straight for the breach.

The militant assault comes from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, an umbrella organisation which can count on the (at least passive) support of 200,000 doctors. It’s being directed by the academy’s vice-president Professor Terence Stephenson, something of a zealot in these matters.

Specifically, Stephenson wants:

  • A ban on brands like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s sponsoring major sporting events such as the Olympics. Carling, sponsor of the Carling Cup, also comes in for some harsh words;
  • Prohibition on the use of celebrities or cartoon figures in promoting “unhealthy” food and drink to children;
  • A safe area around schools, free from fast-food outlets;
  • “Fat taxes”, as in Scandinavia, levied on such foods;
  • Much clearer labelling on the calories, salt, sugar and fat contained therein.

Same old, same old, you may say. And you would be right. This is the “Bannist Tendency” making a not-very veiled attack on the Government’s proclaimed policy of collaborating with industry via so-called “responsibility deals”, which emphasise self-regulatory restraint rather than expensive-to-police and often-ineffectual red-tape.

When I say “ineffectual”, I should qualify that. In the short term, the proposed bans might well have a debilitating effect on commerce without achieving concomitant success in combatting national obesity. Longer term the strategy is tried and tested, however. It amounts to demonising fast-food and soft drinks in the same way the medical profession has managed to demonise smoking. At this very moment health secretary Andrew Lansley, the arch-proponent of industry “responsibility deals”, is contemplating stripping the last vestiges of marketing support from the tobacco industry with a ban on branded packaging. That’s what, in a generation’s time perhaps, the medical profession would like to see happening to Big Food brands.

Reducing the amount of salt, fat and sugar in our diet is of course a commendable aim, and it is right that the medical profession – of all special interest groups – should embrace it. But is it also right to equate the variable impact of HSSFs on our health with the addictive and truly pernicious effects of smoking? There is a matter of degree here, which does not seem to be adequately reflected in the uncompromising messianic fervour of the medical profession. Or, rather, some of the zealots who seem to have hijacked it.

Stephenson himself is a case in point. He may be an eminent paediatrician, but he also harbours some eccentric views. Among them, that second hand smoke (from tobacco) is a significant contributor to cot-deaths. He is also someone who clearly lives in a bubble blissfully sequestered from the inconvenient realities of commercial life. Here he is on the subject of football sponsorship:

“For adults, beer is a source of calories. I like going to a football match and drinking beer, but it’s the high-profile sponsorship that means that every time we mention this trophy, we mention in the same words Carling Cup.” So, let’s ban it, eh? Personally, I’m all the way with Stephenson on renaming it the “English Football League”. Period. But I do wonder where all the extra money is going to come from if we prohibit the likes of Carling, Coca-Cola and (heavy heart, here) McDonald’s from investing in sports events.

Surely, a little more personal responsibility exercised over how many HSSFs we ingest at any one time, not to mention how much exercise we take, are more salutary – and certainly less puritanical – solutions to the national obesity problem?

And, if we’re going to consider banning any advertising at all, what about reviewing the wall of money Big Pharma spends on targeting the medical profession?

Now there’s an unhealthy relationship.


Just Lovin’ It (Not) – Part 2. McDonald’s chokes on its social media initiative

January 26, 2012

When will brands with a corporate reputation problem finally realise that social media – whatever its siren attractions – is not for them?

Not yet, as evidenced by the so-called “McFail” initiative. Last week, McDonald’s (yes, the Brand the World Loves to Hate, see my earlier post), bought two “promoted tweets” – Twitter’s answer to generating advertising revenue. The aim, apparently, was to persuade McDonald’s customers – those presumably with an excess of serotonin in the bloodstream – to share their happy-clappy experiences with the world.

Surprise, surprise, the clickable Twitter “hashtag” McDStories was (all too easily) purloined by mischievous malcontents. Very soon, instead of reading about McNuggets like Grandma used to make them (not), we were subjected to tsunami-force tirades on alleged animal-welfare abuse, wage slavery, food poisoning induced by McD fare and graphic descriptions of the bodily symptoms that accompany it.

By about 1400 hours Eastern Seaboard Time, D-Day, Operation McDStories had been ignominiously aborted. “Within an hour, we saw that it wasn’t going as planned,” explained a baffled Rick Wion, McDonald’s US social media director. “It was negative enough that we set about a change of course.”

Too right, Rick: a 180 degree one, to avoid losing your job.

Before you ask what planet Rick and his McD chums live on, let me explain: it’s the same one inhabited by the folk at Dr Pepper (owner, Coca-Cola), Nestlé, Wendy’s and Qantas. All of these brands have, at various times, lived under the narcotic delusion that social media is a marcoms nirvana utterly divorced from the everyday travails of brand management – and experienced brutal cold-turkey on discovering it is not.

When they go well, social media campaigns are a dream: they inexpensively capture the zeitgeist. But the gains are purely tactical, while the reverses, however infrequent, tend to have asymmetrical, strategic consequences. Why? Because negative high-profile media coverage brings the feckless actions of Rick and people like him to the immediate attention of their CEOs, for all the wrong reasons. If McDonald’s chief Jim Skinner was previously unaware of Wion’s existence, he is no longer. #McDStories has, with one fell blow, managed to poleaxe Jim’s precious Good News story: burgeoning corporate growth in Q4. Not great for Rick’s career advancement, I suspect.


McDonald’s – the brand the world loves to hate

January 9, 2012

Just lovin’ it? You may be, but you can bet they aren’t. No matter how hard it tries, the world’s biggest restaurant chain by revenue simply can’t strike the appropriate note in its advertising campaigns. In place of plaudits, it invariably earns brickbats.

Now why is that I wonder? Well it’s not the calibre of its marketing people that is the problem. Compared with most global corporations, and certainly most international retailers, McDonald’s puts great store by talent. It attracts people like Jill McDonald, UK CEO and a shoo-in Marketer of the Year in most annual polls. Again against the grain, McDonald’s believes in advertising creativity. Can you remember who does Wal-Mart’s advertising? Neither can I. But I do recall that McDonald’s has retained, in turn, Leo Burnett and DDB.

Here’s DDB’s latest US offering. It’s an apparently inoffensive slice of life campaign, featuring farmers who supply McDonald’s with their beef, potatoes and lettuces. It won’t win any creative prizes, but it’s professionally produced and does a job in stressing an increasingly important element in consumer decision-making: the integrity of provenance.

Pulse and respiration still normal? I’m surprised. Because these ads have created near apoplexy in the USA. Apparently, it’s not what they say (which appears to be accurate enough) but what they leave out that should shock us to the marrow. By means of soft, bucolic imagery, McDonald’s has fooled us into believing it is part of a “farm to fork” movement transporting wholesome vegetables and prime beef cuts directly to our local fast-food outlet. Whilst – wouldn’t you just know it – skilfully omitting all mention of the wicked middle-man who, by perverted alchemy, buys up all this wholesome produce and slices and dices it into the fatty fries and bloating burgers that we more naturally associate with McDonald’s. A case not so much of Golden Arches as Arch Hypocrite.

Far be it from me to defend the fast-food industry, but isn’t this criticism a little harsh? Not, it seems, when the ad campaign emanates from The Great Satan – seducer of little children, agent of obesity and chief representative of all that is most reprehensible about international capitalism.

Given such an unsavoury reputation, you might think McDonald’s on safer ground with this lightly amusing piece of comparative advertising, which pokes fun at its rival Burger King. Small boy in a playground despairs of ever tasting his beloved McD Fries because they always end up being filched by his bigger brethren. Then he hits upon a novel and successful stratagem: hide them behind a BK bag, and nobody will ever want to eat them –

The ad – not unreasonably – won a bronze in the recent Epica Awards. But maybe because it was produced in Germany, it also created a major sense of humour loss, which resulted in humiliating retraction:

“McDonald’s has broken the rules of comparative advertising by degrading the Burger King brand in the TV commercial ‘Packaging.’ McDonald’s and Burger King have agreed that [the spot’s] distribution and broadcast … will be stopped,” said a statement from Burger King.

Apparently, the agencies responsible for the ad, Tribal DDB and Heye & Partners, had put it out on the web without seeking permission from their client. It has since attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers on YouTube.

At least McDonald’s is popular with someone.


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